Parents return to school to meet Common Core challenges

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series looking at how Belle Chasse Primary School in Plaquemines Parish is adjusting to the Common Core standards that are reshaping teaching in classrooms throughout Louisiana.

When Mike and Camille Chudzinski tried to help their son with his homework earlier this fall, they were bewildered.

The fourth-grader brought home no spelling lists, few textbooks and a whole new approach to solving math problems.

When he tackled multi-digit addition, for instance, Patrick did not just line up the two numbers, then add the columns, as his parents had been taught to do. Instead, he sketched out a graph with a series of arrows and marks that appeared at first to his parents as indecipherable as hieroglyphics.

“The first few weeks of homework … there was a lot of us asking, ‘Why are you doing that? You are wasting time. Just add the numbers,’ ” Camille Chudzinski said.

The education standards known as the Common Core have ignited political battles throughout Louisiana and the country.

In kitchens and living rooms across America, they have prompted struggles of a different sort, as confused parents adjust to the new approaches to teaching English and math, and the accompanying changes in homework.

The Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C., do not constitute a federal curriculum or mandate specific reading selections.

They do spell out skills that children should learn by certain grade-levels, such as understanding place value in first grade, and general educational principles, such as incorporating nonfiction readings in English classes and multi-part word problems in math.

At schools such as Belle Chase Primary, which Patrick Chudzinski attends, the standards already have prompted significant changes in the way students are taught and the homework they bring home.

In math, for instance, students are sometimes expected to solve arithmetic problems (like 23 x 42 or 1,709 + 2,350) using multiple methods, some of which are unfamiliar to their parents.

Belle Chasse Primary teachers devoted much of their summer vacation to learning the ins and outs of the new standards.

Many say they appreciate the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking and the opportunity to teach fewer skills in greater depth.

Families say the school has gone out of its way to explain the new methods and expectations, including holding information sessions for parents seeking guidance on how to help children with their homework.

Yet the changes have still caught some parents off-guard. Arguably nowhere have they fostered more anxiety than among the families of fourth-graders, who must pass a standardized test that will be at least partially aligned with the new standards to advance to fifth grade.

“We thought we would roll along and weren’t expecting anything crazy,” said Ted Campiso, the parent of a fourth-grader at Belle Chasse Primary. “Then we started seeing homework.”

Multiple ways to solve it

When Patrick Chudzinski tackled multi-digit multiplication in his homework earlier this month, a single equation could consume an entire page.

Faced with the problem 452 x 4, for instance, he started with the “break apart” method, which entails multiplying 4 by 2, 4 by 50 and 4 by 400, then adding up the results.

He depicted a similar problem graphically using the “area model.”

He also tried “repeated addition” (adding 452 four times) and what’s referred to as the “standard algorithm” (lining up the problem vertically, as his parents were taught to do).

“In past years, like third or second grade, we didn’t even know these methods existed,” Patrick said.

The theory behind the new approach is children will come to understand the meaning behind math problems, and not just learn how to follow rules.

Fourth-grade teacher Mary Beth Newchurch said she has already noticed some encouraging results.

One student recently described 1.5 million as 15 hundred thousand, a connection she doesn’t think he would have made without the changed instructional approach.

“We’re teaching them to think,” she said.

It took the Chudzinskis a few weeks — and some texting and emailing with other parents — to adapt to Patrick’s new homework assignments.

“I’m not mathematically inclined,” his mother said. “My kid’s the mathematically inclined one. So when you first see this, it’s very daunting.”

It helped when Patrick showed his parents a page of a classmate’s work. That proved to them Patrick wasn’t solving the problems “wrong” or in his own way, but exactly how he and his classmates had been taught.

“It really was a light bulb for all of us where we were like, ‘OK, we can work with this now,’ ” Camille Chudzinski said.

And even if she doesn’t fully understand the different methods herself, she can always rely on the “standard algorithm” to check her son’s final answers.

Pushing students to think

Some families have had a rockier transition than others.

Knowing the Common Core changes were coming, Gina Horton enrolled her fourth-grade son, Joel, in after-school “homework help” for the first time this fall.

Horton can tell her son is being pushed harder than before.

When his class read the book “Tuck Everlasting” recently, they analyzed themes, characters and settings in more depth than Joel was accustomed to.

“He’s creative and likes a challenge,” his mother said. So far, he has maintained honor-roll grades.

“The instruction is not something from the day of old where the teacher could just say, ‘OK, this is how you do it.’ They are making them think and reason,” said Horton. “I think the school is doing what it can to make sure this works.”

For Irene Breaux’s daughter, also a fourth-grader, the adjustment has been harder.

The family’s home computer is broken, which makes it hard to research the new standards online, and Breaux can’t afford after-school homework help for her daughter at the moment.

Her older son is skilled in math but wasn’t taught according to the Common Core.

“We don’t always know how to help her,” Breaux said.

Her daughter earned a failing grade in math for the first time this school year.

Breaux said that’s probably not entirely attributable to the Common Core, however. Her husband was in a bad accident, and the children have been understandably stressed during his recovery.

She’s counting on her daughter’s strong work ethic — and the school’s support — to help the child rebound.

Belle Chasse parents, like the rest of the American public, have struggled at times to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to the Common Core.

Campiso said rumors run rampant on Facebook, where parents occasionally post images of “alleged” homework assignments that might, or might not, be linked to the new standards.

Some, like the different methods for solving math problems, can in fact be traced back to the Common Core.

Others, like a specific reading assigned by a teacher, are less likely to be related.

School officials have focused two Common Core information sessions for parents on the shifts in math instruction, where the changes are most obvious.

At the second session last week, fourth-grade teacher Vickie Nagin showed parents examples of “tape diagrams” (visual models that use rectangles to represent the parts of a ratio), “array models” (a way of mapping out long division visually) and “number bonds” (visual representations of addition and subtraction).

“Some ways are going to click (for) one child and not another,” she told the parents. “The point is that they are thinking about what they are doing with the numbers.”

Ted Campiso said he can tell his son has been doing a lot of deep thinking — and some worrying — this school year.

Between extracurricular activities, including karate, baseball and lacrosse, and the new standards, the fourth-grader is sometimes up until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. finishing his homework.

Campiso and his wife are trying to keep an open mind about the Common Core until it’s been in place longer and they can better gauge the results.

“We consider ourselves in the middle,” he said. “We don’t love it, and we don’t hate it.”

In the meantime, he said, he appreciates how hard many Belle Chasse Primary teachers are working to adjust their instruction and re-educate parents, in addition to students.

At the recent information session, Campiso was one of about 15 fourth-grade parents listening, taking notes and trying to be patient.

“If it sticks around, hopefully it makes our kids more intelligent and better prepared for college,” he said. “But to say one hard-and-fast thing about it — not yet. We are still waiting.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.